This book is the first to consider the work of Herman Melville's later years as a whole, in the light of his life and reading during those years and of the intellectual and artistic ambience of the later nineteenth century. With the exception of Billy Budd, almost all of the writing Melville produced between 1857 and 1891 is poetry. Until now little attention has been given to the poetry and it has been customary to view Melville's final masterpiece, Billy Budd, against the background of the earlier fiction -- almost as if the writing of the intervening thirty-four years had not existed.
William H. Shurr, who has studied the poems with close attention to the Melville manuscripts in the Houghton Library at Harvard University, contends that Melville's poetry merits more attention and appreciation than has hitherto been accorded it. Concerned principally with the maturation of Melville's darker themes, he has been the first to study the carefully designed sequences in which Melville published his poems. He has also discovered in the poems thematic patterns -- among them Melville's heterodox Christology and his concept of a particular kind of individualism found in what he calls the "transcendent act" -- that shed new light on the complexities of Billy Budd.